The other tennis movie that played at TIFF is Borg McEnroe, which was the opening night film because…someone at TIFF really likes tennis? It’s a tennis themed year. If you’re a big tennis fan, you might enjoy Borg McEnroe for its recreation of the 1980 Wimbledon finals in which Björn Borg and John McEnroe played a great, close match. At the time, Björn Borg was the best men’s tennis player in the world, and McEnroe was number two, better known for his temper and antics than his game. Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason stars as Borg, and Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe, and they’re both pretty great. Gudnason gets the focus and intensity of Borg, and LaBeouf is perfect as a hotheaded guy who can’t quite control himself.
I’m just not sure why this movie exists. I think it wants to be the Rocky of tennis, but the build-up to the final match isn’t as compelling as it needs to be for that to work. Oh, Borg was a temperamental child who eventually learned to channel his rage into his game? And McEnroe had impossible-to-please parents? Okay. Why is that this movie? Borg McEnroe might as well be a documentary, because its most notable element is the imparting of biographical information. (To be fair, most biopics should just be documentaries.) The tennis scenes are, admittedly, very good, but you can watch the real thing on Youtube. Again, I’m not sure what about Borg McEnroe justifies its existence.
Shia LaBeouf’s performance, maybe? He really is a very good actor, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen him be very good in something. And this Gudnason is also very good, and very handsome, which is a pleasant bonus. There’s also Stellan Skarsgård, another Very Good Actor doing Very Good Acting. There’s nothing wrong with Borg McEnroe on a technical level, but the story, even with the drama of an intense final match, isn’t terribly compelling.
Do we need a rule in movies, that just because a sporting event is exciting, it shouldn’t be a movie? Maybe we do. I used to be annoyed at Seabiscuit for not recreating the match race at the climax of the film, but in retrospect, that was a good decision. Partly because there will never be a greater horse race in narrative film than the one in The Black Stallion, but mostly because Seabiscuit knew that the race wasn’t really the point, it was the underdog story of this little horse. But what is the story of Borg McEnroe? Battle of the Sexes uses tennis to make a larger point about the condition of the world, but Borg McEnroe isn’t making a point beyond “professional athletes are intense people”, and also “these two guys eventually became super good friends”.
And THAT is interesting. How about a Borg McEnroe that follows them past 1980, when they become friends? How about a story about two great competitors bonding? There’s the whole “gentleman vs. the rebel” set-up the press used to hype the Wimbledon finals in the movie, but it’s not really explored beyond that most surface level. We don’t really get into McEnroe’s inner process at all, and all we see of Borg is that he has panic attacks and really doesn’t seem to enjoy tennis. That’s also a story! How about a movie about Borg’s retirement at age 26? What did he do next? I don’t know! Tell me that story.